If you read our men’s draw preview, published earlier today, you know what to expect. We discuss each quarter of the women’s draw, projecting semifinalists and identifying the principal dark horses.
First quarter: Not since the Serena Slam of 2002-03 has a woman won the first two major titles of a season as injuries, inconsistency, and fluctuating motivation have characterized WTA contenders. Although she has not duplicated Djokovic’s sensational campaign last year, the new top-ranked woman reached the final at two of three clay tournaments before a shoulder injury contributed to her Rome withdrawal. Even if Azarenka continues to struggle with that injury, she eyes a relatively clear path to the second week but perhaps no further. Projected to face her in that round is Cibulkova, whose semifinal here in 2009 surpasses any Roland Garros performance by Vika. Consistently able to trouble the world #1, she dominated her through a set and a half in Miami before reluctantly submitting in one of the best WTA matches this season. Promising French junior Caroline Garcia would face Azarenka in the second round a year after nearly toppling Sharapova in the same round, so we might find out sooner rather than later how the inflammable Vika will respond to a hostile Paris crowd. Always eager to sabotage the favorites, the sans-culottes of Roland Garros might even rally behind Cibulkova in the hope of unnerving the world #1.
Easily unnerved herself, 2010 runner-up Stosur should fancy her chances of reaching the quarterfinals, past which she has not progressed at any tournament since February. In the first week of last year’s US Open, she engaged in one of the tournament’s longest matches against Petrova and needed to rally from a third-set deficit. Despite her advancing age, the Russian defeated the Australian in a third-set tiebreak at Indian Wells, her fifth victory in their seven meetings. Elsewhere in the area, the conqueror of Radwanska, Ivanovic, and not much else (Petra Cetkovska) represents the least of the challenges confronting the rusty Sabine Lisicki. After an opening battle of serves against Mattek-Sands, the Wimbledon semifinalist might collide with the rising Sloane Stephens or Australian Open quarterfinalist Makarova. On a hard court, Lisicki has held the upper hand against occasional doubles partner Stosur and likely would against Stosur as well. But both veterans enjoy a key advantage over her in clay expertise. The 2010 runner-up especially would hope to rely on that skill in a possible quarterfinal with Azarenka, who has won all of their previous clashes in a generally emphatic fashion.
Second quarter: Like the third quarter of the men’s draw, the second quarter of the women’s draw offers a plethora of possibilities to ponder. Seeking her first major semifinal, Radwanska would face a seven-time major champion in a second-round rematch of a Miami quarterfinal. She defeated a weary Venus with ease on that occasion, and the world #3 will know that clay rarely brings out the best from the erratic elder Williams. The Pole’s next opponent, 2009 champion Kuznetsova suffered from dismal draws in this year’s most significant clay tournaments but did emit occasional sparks in two competitive losses to Azarenka and Ivanovic. Also victimized by May draws, the Serb finds herself situated more comfortably at Roland Garros, whereas she has won just four total matches in three appearances since capturing the 2008 title. Although Peer has troubled Ana before, she can expect her greatest first-week resistance from Sara Errani, a three-time titlist in 2012. The Italian joined Makarova in the Australian Open quarterfinals this year by exploiting a similarly benign section of the draw, but she has not recorded a victory over an elite opponent since then. Also of note is the putative comeback of Melanie Oudin, who still hasn’t forgotten the word written on her shoes. Colliding in many a tense skirmish throughout their careers, Ivanovic and Radwanska would offer a scintillating contrast of styles should they meet in the fourth round, where the Pole’s persistence would test the former champion’s focus.
Should the third seed survive those three major champions in her path, her history of futility in major quarterfinals might halt here. No opponent more formidable than Kerber would loom at that stage, for world #8 Bartoli has won just two of eight clay matches this year. All the same, the Frenchwoman can nurture more hope for defending many of her 2011 semifinal points, considering her vast superiority in overall talent to the assorted journeywomen and clay specialists around her. Wasting little time in reaching the top 10 after she first declared herself last August, Kerber could target her second semifinal in three majors—an astonishing statistic for a player who routinely exited in the first week. If she remains less lethal on clay than on other surfaces, so does Radwanska, but the Pole’s greater experience on these stages should prevail.
Third quarter: As though the prospect of defending a title would not intimidate her sufficiently, the draw has placed a series of compelling obstacles in the path of reigning champion Li Na. Steady although unremarkable for most of the season, in a stark contrast to her history, she burst back into prominence by reaching and nearly winning the Rome final. That confidence should serve her well as she prepares to tackle Cirstea, a former quarterfinalist in Paris and a bold, unpredictable shot-maker who ousted Stosur from her home major in Melbourne. Two rounds later awaits Mona Barthel, arguably the WTA breakthrough player of the year with a maiden title, a second-week appearance at the Australian Open, and a lengthening record of fierce bouts with higher-ranked foes. Barthel caught fire in Stuttgart, where she nearly reached the semifinals, and could burn an unwary Li if she ignites here, although her fellow rising star Christina McHale might intercept her. Less likely to slay the defending champion are her uninspiring fourth-round opponents, including the suddenly irrelevant Zvonareva (rarely a threat on clay at her best) and the intriguing but limited Vinci.
Joining Radwanska in playing the week before Roland Garros, Schiavone’s strong week in Strasbourg may have provided her with the momentum necessary to avoid an early-round disaster. Even on her beloved clay, the Italian has struggled to string together victories in a 2012 campaign that has shown symptoms of a terminal decline. Her ranking would tumble quickly should that trend continue, although she must count herself fortunate to have drawn the staggering Kvitova when the second week begins. Before Li and Schiavone reprise last year’s final in a quarterfinal, the latter might need to repeat her victory over Jankovic in a rollercoaster three-setter here last year, and in another rollercoaster three-setter at Brisbane in January. The tournament’s greatest enigma, Kvitova possesses the firepower to plow through the entire field. When she led in the third set of her Australian Open semifinal, the Wimbledon champion seemed on the verge of dominating the WTA as planned. Since then, she has reached only one more semifinal as illness, injury, and incorrigible streakiness have alternated in frustrating her and diminishing the fear that she inspired in opponents for much of the last year.
Fourth quarter: What the draw giveth, the draw taketh away. With regard to the second-seeded Sharapova, the draw has provided the smoothest route imaginable to the quarterfinals and then the most formidable opponent imaginable at that stage. Awaiting in the third round, Chinese double-fister Peng Shuai has earned a victory over the Russian before at her home tournament in Beijing, but she has fallen well short of replicating her breakthrough season of 2011. Meanwhile, anticipated fourth-round opponent Kirilenko usually does not adapt her counterpunching game effectively on clay, although she led Maria by a set at Indian Wells before faltering. Unable to connect consecutive victories at any of twelve tournaments this year is yet another Russian, Pavlyuchenkova, who will require a miracle to defend her quarterfinal points. Her plunge has seemed as mysterious as it has precipitous, and it shows no sign of abating. Sometimes vulnerable to the most improbable opponents on clay, from Mashona Washington to Evgeniya Rodina, Sharapova will fall before the quarterfinals only if she suffers another such lapse.
Once at that stage, however, the world #2 can expect to face her relentless nemesis of recent years in Serena Williams. Undefeated in three clay tournaments this year, the 2002 champion has received a more challenging route to that destination that might pit her against the mercurial German Julia Goerges. This pair produced scintillating exchanges in Canada last summer, where Serena’s serving superiority and athleticism prevailed after moments of tension. Greater tension might unfold if the American intersects with Wozniacki for the third time in five tournaments. The top seed at the last major, the Dane’s descent from the remarkable to the respectable cost her a top-eight seed and doomed her to meet Serena as the second week begins. But this pessimism may prove unwarranted, for Wozniacki won the first three sets that they played this year while conquering the 13-time major champion in Miami. Trailing by a set to her in Madrid, Serena collected herself to dominate the next two sets in a clear demonstration of her superiority when she finds her best tennis. Without that untouchable best, she could fall prey to a rival of such persistence. Or so hopes Sharapova, the rival who would profit the most from a stumble by the presumptive title favorite.
Final: Azarenka vs. Serena
Champion: Serena Williams